SYDNEY • Thousands of holidaymakers and locals were forced to flee to beaches in fire-ravaged south-east Australia, as blazes ripped through popular tourist areas, leaving no escape by land.
About 4,000 people were trapped yesterday on the foreshore of the town of Mallacoota, and many others sought refuge on beaches in fire-encircled seaside towns up and down a 200km strip of coast.
Some residents with boats even took to the sea, hoping for refuge from one of the worst days yet in Australia's months-long bush-fire crisis.
Dozens of properties were feared to have been destroyed since late Monday, and at least seven people were unaccounted for in New South Wales and Victoria states as flames reached well-populated towns such as Batemans Bay.
In some places, the blazes were so intense, the smoke so thick and the fire-provoked dry lightning storms so severe that aerial reconnaissance and water bombing had to be halted, said the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
In Mallacoota, in Victoria state, smoke turned day to night, and the authorities said nearby fires were causing extreme thunderstorms and "ember attacks".
"We have got a fire that looks like it is about to impact on Mallacoota," Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told public broadcaster ABC, adding that firefighters had been deployed to protect the area.
The authorities had, for days, been warning tens of thousands of tourists enjoying Australia's summer holidays to leave the area, but it was now too late to leave.
"We have got three strike teams in Mallacoota that will be looking after 4,000 people down on the beach there," Mr Crisp said. "We are naturally very concerned about communities that have become isolated."
Preparations were reportedly under way for an evacuation by sea or air if needed.
On social media, residents said they fled on boat or were putting on life jackets in case they needed to seek refuge in the water.
Temperatures in bush-fire areas can hit hundreds of degrees Celsius, killing anyone nearby long before the flames reach them.
Fleeing into the ocean is a "last-resort option", said Victoria's emergency management agency.
Local radio journalist Francesca Winterson said she was watching the fire approach the town and her own home while she tried to broadcast emergency warnings amid a power cut.
"I would rather be alive than have a house," she told ABC Gippsland.
Australia's unprecedented bush fires have been burning for months, but the latest in a series of heatwaves and high winds have wrought new devastation.
The crisis has hit cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, home to several million people.
On Monday, around 100,000 people were urged to flee five Melbourne suburbs as the spiralling bush-fire crisis killed a volunteer firefighter battling a separate blaze in the countryside.
The authorities in the country's second-biggest city downgraded an earlier bush-fire emergency warning, but said residents should steer clear of the blaze, which has burned through 40ha of grassland.
Local media showed images of water bombers flying over neighbourhoods, and families hosing down their homes in the hope of halting the spread of the fire.
A volunteer firefighter died in New South Wales state and two others suffered burns while working on a blaze for more than five hours south-west of Sydney, said the Rural Fire Service.
"It is believed that the truck rolled when hit by extreme winds," the agency said, adding that the man left behind a pregnant wife.
Two people were killed as a blaze ripped through the small community of Cobargo, taking the death toll since the devastating fire season began several weeks ago to 12. Five others are missing.
Almost 4 million ha of forest and bushland have been destroyed in New South Wales alone.
While cities such as Canberra and Parramatta cancelled fireworks celebrations for ringing in the new year, Sydney's harbourside festivities, which draw tens of thousands of tourists, will go ahead.
The city council rejected a petition calling for the display to be scrapped and the money to be donated to bush fire and drought relief projects, saying the event is watched by millions of people worldwide and generates A$130 million (S$123 million) for the local economy.
As thousands of people gathered along the foreshore of Sydney Harbour to get a prime viewing spot of the midnight fireworks, smoke drifting in from bush fires caused a polluting haze.
Protesters who claimed the pro-coal mining policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government were exacerbating the crisis were not about to give him a rest on New Year's Eve and were planning to block roads around his official Sydney residence.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG